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Credentialism, elite employment, and career aspirations

- February 21, 2011

Steve Hsu has posted a series of reflections here, here, and here on the dominance of graduates of HYPS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford (in that order, I believe)) in various Master-of-the-Universe-type jobs at “elite law firms, consultancies, and I-banks, hedge/venture funds, startups, and technology companies.” Hsu writes:

In the real world, people believe in folk notions of brainpower or IQ. (“Quick on the uptake”, “Picks things up really fast”, “A sponge” …) They count on elite educational institutions to do their g-filtering for them. . . .

Most top firms only recruit at a few schools. A kid from a non-elite UG school has very little chance of finding a job at one of these places unless they first go to grad school at, e.g., HBS, HLS, or get a PhD from a top place. (By top place I don’t mean “gee US News says Ohio State’s Aero E program is top 5!” — I mean, e.g., a math PhD from Berkeley or a PhD in computer science from MIT — the traditional top dogs in academia.) . . .

I teach at U Oregon and out of curiosity I once surveyed the students at our Honors College, which has SAT-HSGPA characteristics similar to Cornell or Berkeley. Very few of the kids knew what a venture capitalist or derivatives trader was. Very few had the kinds of life and career aspirations that are *typical* of HYPS or techer kids. . . .

I have just a few comments.

1. Getting in to a top college is not the same as graduating from said college with good grades (or some countervailing advantage). So, yes, the people doing the corporate hiring are using the educational institutions to do their “g-filtering,” but it’s not all happening at the admissions stage. Hsu quotes researcher Lauren Rivera as writing, “it was not the content of an elite education that employers valued but rather the perceived rigor of these institutions’ admissions processes”–but I don’t know if I believe that!

2. As Hsu points out (but maybe doesn’t emphasize enough), the selection processes at these top firms don’t seem to make a lot of sense even on their own terms. Here’s another quote from Rivera: “his halo effect of school prestige, combined with the prevalent belief that the daily work performed within professional service firms was “not rocket science” gave evaluators confidence that the possession of an elite credential was a sufficient signal of a candidate’s ability to perform the analytical capacities of the job.” The reasoning seems to be: The job isn’t so hard so the recruiters can hire whoever they want if such people pass a moderately stringent IQ threshold, thus they can pick the HYPS graduates who they like. It seems like a case of the lexicographic fallacy: the idea that you pick IQ based on the school and then clubbability, etc., among the subset of applicants who remain.

3. I should emphasize that academic hiring is far from optimal. We never know who’s going to apply for our postdoc positions. And, when it comes to faculty hiring, I think Don Rubin put it best when he said that academic hiring committees all to often act as if they’re giving out an award rather than trying to hire someone to do a job. And don’t get me started on tenure review committees.

4. Regarding Hsu’s last point above, I’ve long been glad that I went to MIT rather than Harvard, maybe not overall–I was miserable in most of college–but for my future career. Either place I would’ve taken hard classes and learned a lot, but one advantage of MIT was that we had no sense–no sense at all–that we could make big bucks. We had no sense of making moderately big bucks as lawyers, no sense of making big bucks working on Wall Street, and no sense of making really big bucks by starting a business. I mean, sure, we knew about lawyers (but we didn’t know that a lawyer with technical skills would be a killer combination), we knew about Wall Street (but we had no idea what they did, other than shout pork belly prices across a big room), and we knew about tech startups (but we had no idea that they were anything to us beyond a source of jobs for engineers). What we were all looking for was a good solid job with cool benefits (like those companies in California that had gyms at the office). I majored in physics, which my friends who were studying engineering thought was a real head-in-the-clouds kind of thing to do, not really practical at all. We really had no sense that a physicist degree from MIT degree with good grades was a hot ticket.

And it wasn’t just us, the students, who felt this way. It was the employers too. My senior year I applied to some grad schools (in physics and in statistics) and to some jobs. I got into all the grad schools and got zero job interviews. Not just zero jobs. Zero interviews. And these were not at McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, etc. (none of which I’d heard of). They were places like TRW, etc. The kind of places that were interviewing MIT physics grads (which is how I thought of applying for these jobs in the first place). And after all, what could a company like that do with a kid with perfect physics grades from MIT? Probably not enough of a conformist, eh?

This was fine for me–grad school suited me just fine. I’m just glad that big-buck$ jobs weren’t on my radar screen. I think I would’ve been tempted by the glamour of it all. If I’d gone to college 10 or 20 years later, I might have felt that as a top MIT grad, I had the opportunity–even the obligation, in a way–to become some sort of big-money big shot. As it was, I merely thought i had the opportunity and obligation to make important contributions in science, which is a goal that I suspect works better for me (and many others like me).

P.S. Hsu says that “much of (good) social science seems like little more than documenting what is obvious to any moderately perceptive person with the relevant life experience.” I think he might be making a basic error here. If you come up with a new theory, you’ll want to do two things: (a) demonstrate that it predicts things you already know, and (b) use it to make new predictions. To develop, understand, and validate a theory, you have to do a lot of (a)–hence Hsu’s impression–in order to be ready to do (b).

A simpler response to Hsu is that it’s common for “moderately perceptive persons with the relevant life experience” to disagree with each other. In my own field of voting and elections, even someone as renowned as Michael Barone (who is more than moderately perceptive and has much more life experience than I do) can still get things embarrassingly wrong. (My reflections on “thinking like a scientist” may be relevant here.)